Park City’s Team X alpine provides women an option to keep skiing
October 10, 2018
Say you're a female skier who is out of high school or college and is competitive at the continental level. Maybe you have a couple World Cups under your belt, but you're not getting support from a national team. If you want to continue skiing competitively, what do you do?
For a lot of skiers, the options are slim, and quitting the sport is the most apparent route.
"It's not an easily funded sport, so once (women) graduate they either quit or they go onto the national team, which is hard to do because a lot of national teams have cutoff ages, so you just kind of age out," said Madison Hoffman a skier with Team X Alpine, a Park City-based independent ski team.
Jim Tschabrun, the team's founder, said while there are plenty of independent teams for men, there are none for women in the States, and there haven't been for almost a decade.
So in March he left Rowmark Ski Academy, where he had coached for seven years, and started Team X.
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"I just thought now was a good opportunity to start something like this," he said. "Internationally – not just in the U.S. – there are more and more people who need something like this. … I've been (coaching) for 20 years now, and I felt confident about what I'm doing, but young enough that I still have the energy to take the risk."
Of course, this decision was not on a whim. He had to do his market research first.
Before leaving, he asked college coaches in the skiing community if they had skiers that would be interested in joining an independent team. He quickly found some good candidates, and when he was ready, he started raising capital, filing paperwork, searching for brick and mortar venues, and recruiting — which he says was difficult for him.
By this fall he had assembled a four-person ski team, whose stories each illustrate a different gap in current ski ecosystem.
Madison Hoffman graduated from Rowmark at age 18 and wanted to ski competitively for two years before going to college. However, there are very few options for postgraduate competitive skiers at her age and level. Though Hoffman is already a member of the Australian national team (where she is a citizen), she wouldn't receive any coaching or support through it.
"They don't even have a year-round training program," Hoffman said. "I would really just get a uniform from them, that's it."
Foreste Peterson, a Dartmouth graduate, took fourth overall in giant slalom on the NorAm circuit (the International Federation of Skiing's competition for North America) in 2018, and third in 2017. After college she didn't have any options for her next step.
"She didn't have a place on the national team, but wanted to continue competing and trying to extend her career," Tschabrun said.
Then there's Katie Fleckenstein.
"She made the Canadian B-team, but they sort of disbanded it based on a few things up there on the women's side," Tschabrun said. "They have a couple athletes who were injured, so it was down to two athletes, and they didn't feel like it was enough to sustain the team, so she found us. She's a really strong competitor in all four events."
Those three, along with Norwegian Benedicte Lyche, who raced for Montana State University and was the 2017 NCAA giant slalom champion and a multi-year All American, comprise Team X.
Parkites can find them training around town; mountain biking, hiking and making turns on Park City Mountain's slopes when they open. The team also has partnerships with a Crossfit gym, a pilates studio and Basin Rec, where they conduct their strength and conditioning training.
The question of why there weren't options for Team X's athletes before Tschabrun is something of a chicken-or-egg situation.
There are plenty of high-profile independent teams for men, including the Team American Foundation, which Bode Miller founded to provide himself and others with a more specialized training. The organization now supports athletes in similar situations as Team X – recent college graduates who had solid careers.
Tschabrun said that fewer women participate in the sport after high school.
"For many women, I think partly there hasn't been an option," he said. "If they haven't made their national team or an elite NCAA program, they decide to move on because they didn't have anywhere to go."
He said they could work into an elite academy, or stay with their club programs, but neither of those would provide the support an independent team would.
"I think there's a cultural aspect to it too," Tschabrun added. "It's still a very male-driven sport. There aren't many female coaches – believe me, I've looked. … And I think that's part of it. That culture has made it difficult to get something like this going."
Taking a different track
So far, Team X is moving along well. It's already held a camp in New Zealand and Australia, and has moved on to dry-land training before it hits the slopes locally.
Coley Oliver, a Park City native, Rowmark graduate and former coach at Stratton Mountain School in Stratton, Vermont, signed on as an assistant coach and head of head of sports performance at Team X.
The group also has two technicians: Cam Furer, who is also an assistant coach, and head technician Neil Lande, who worked for U.S. Ski and Snowboard on the Europa Cup team staff for five years.
Oliver said the technicians take pressure off of athletes, and the high ratio of teachers to students, so to speak, is beneficial to everyone.
"I can really cater to each individual athlete, which is awesome because they all need different things," Oliver said about what drew him to the team.
"The setup is ideal, or as ideal as it can be."
Team X's small size and high student-to-teacher ratio allow it to take a radically different tack than national teams.
For instance, with only four athletes, there is no pecking order. The athletes get the same training and time on the snow. Then, because all the athletes are competing at the NorAm level, the team only has to focus on one competitive circuit.
The athletes also aren't under pressure to finish at a certain level in competition. Instead, Tschabrun said the team takes a more process-oriented approach, allowing athletes to develop without worrying that they have to make the finals at a certain event or face being cut from the team.
"In terms of goals for the season, it's to offer really high level programming for these athletes; to focus on a long-term trajectory with all of them," Tschabrun said. "(It's) not to have that year-to-year stress of criteria, but to look for what is best for these athletes and their careers, which hopefully will extend long beyond this season. And then to create a program that caters to those needs."
While Tschabrun and Oliver do not see the team as a way of circumventing or undermining the national team structure so much as filling a niche, Tschabrun said he has seen a shift in goals among athletes away from the national team structure.
He sees the college racing scene as a big driver of that shift.
"When I started coaching, everyone's goal was to make the national team," he said. "When I started coaching, everyone said, 'I want an Olympic gold medal; I want to win world cups.' About five or six years ago I started to see a shift where nine out of ten athletes I work with said 'I really want to ski Division I; I would love to get a DI scholarship; that would be a dream goal for me.'
Tschabrun chalked part of that shift up to national teams tightening their belts and taking on fewer athletes, and part of the shift to how competitive, and social, the college circuit is.
"If you look at the University of Utah, it's almost harder to make that team than it is to make the U.S. development team," he said, "(Universities) are casting a broad net when they are recruiting; they can be incredibly selective. They are pulling athletes straight off the Europa Cup who are finishing top 10; top 15 there, where you don't need to be at that level to make the U.S. ski team. So there's also some prestige to making a really elite program in the U.S. at a college level. Then, when you're at the event, it's hard to ignore the fact that the college circuit is really fun."
And for those who choose NCAA competitions over FIS competitions, independent teams are the most likely option after graduation.
For Tschabrun and Team X, that means a stream of talented skiers who want to keep the dream alive.
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